Small, light sports cars are so rewarding to own, and few can match the Smart Roadster for value. The Roadster – and its Roadster Coupé partner, identified by the glass rear hatchback panel – was launched in 2003, based on an extended version of the City Coupé platform and powered by a slightly enlarged 698cc, 79bhp version of its turbocharged triple, which is rear-mounted and drives through a six-speed semi-auto transmission. In its most basic form it weighs 790kg.
Aluminium doors and plastic body panels help with that, as do a simple interior. True, it’s snug inside, but the minimalist trim and low seating position make it an interesting place to sit, and the turbo triple gives a pleasing off-beat thrum. The chassis is very well-balanced, there’s enough power – just – to make things interesting, and the way the Roadster flows down a road is rather pleasing. While this isn’t something we often talk about in the pages of Octane, it’s also incredibly frugal, managing up to 50mpg on a run.
Downsides? The power steering, which was standard on all UK cars, feels over-light. However, the biggest block to enjoyment is the gearbox. This semi-automatic Getrag ’box was by far the biggest cause for criticism of the car when new. Shifts are slow, which denies the Smart the pep it deserves during acceleration, but there are many happy owners out there, and most claim that it’s possible to drive around the transmission’s quirks.
A tuned Brabus version saw power rise to 101bhp thanks to a different turbo, sports exhaust and tweaked ECU. The gearbox was improved, and the engine’s extra muscle helped minimise use of the shifters when rolling. Lower suspension and a set of oversized diamond-cut 17-inch wheels (with wider rear tyres) give it a much meaner attitude, although the extra grip doesn’t necessarily make it more fun. A more aggressive bodykit and leather-clad interior made it an appealing buy for a few at the time, but the more basic models have aged more gracefully.
At the other end of the spectrum, the limited-edition Roadster Light saw the standard car stripped back to the extreme. Steel wheels, even more basic seats from the City Coupé and a manual roof make it the purest of the range. It even went without a radio, although officially the weight stayed the same.
If you’re looking for a real drivers’ car you might be better off finding a tidy MX-5 or Mk3 Toyota MR2 for similar money, but the Smart is the more interesting option. After all, Gordon Murray notoriously loved his daily-driver Roadster. Its tiny dimensions make it a joy to thread down the narrowest of B-roads, and it works brilliantly in the city. If you can appreciate the Roadster for everything it does well, and learn to live with its quirks, there has never been a better time to buy one.
WHAT TO PAY
Early Smart Roadsters are still relatively common so you can afford to be picky. Presentable ones start from £1000, but £2000-3000 finds a genuinely great example. The glassroofed Coupé is rarer and slightly more expensive, while the better-specified later cars, including the Final Edition, are closer to £4000.
Brabus Coupés have held their values a little better, but a well-used example can still be found for around £2500. £4000-4500 will buy a well-maintained car with reasonable miles; the best can still fetch £6000 and more. look out for…
The six-speed Getrag automated manual gearbox is reliable, but the clutch requires adjustment at each service. It’s not a difficult job, but can be overlooked by non-specialist garages, and can cause juddering or jerky shifts.
As with any convertible, cabin leaks are quite common if the roof is not kept in good shape. The fabric can look quite tatty too, but rebuilds are simple. Hardtops can be retrofitted.